More Than a Meal

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Sean Brock // Billy Reid Journal

I am not food blogger. Actually, I’m not even a blogger at this point. Sorry about that.

But, I’ve been re-watching Season Two of PBS’ Mind of a Chef and, if you haven’t seen the show, it is some incredible television if you care anything about food. The second season, in addition to featuring the ingenious April Bloomfield of NYC’s The Spotted Pig, also features multiple James Beard award-winning southern food cult hero Sean Brock. If you’re not familiar with Sean Brock stop reading this. Go find out about Sean and come back. Brock’s Husk locations in Charleston and Nashville are new meccas for people discovering or re-discovering southern food: a renaissance that owes much of its fervor to the incredible work of the people over at the Southern Foodways Alliance.

I digress. This isn’t about Sean Brock. He just brought it about. Because southern food is some evocative stuff. Not to be confused with provocative. Which I suppose it could be depending on the situation.

Born-and-bred southerners love food. And they love to talk about food. Because, for butter or worse, food isn’t just the necessary stuff of life for us. It’s ritual. It’s community. It conjures up powerful memories. I could technically survive, I guess, on a bucket of spinach a day. But why would I want to? Survive, that is.

I am nearly 30 and have lived in three states: Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia. Which means that I’ve been eating what we consider to be pretty traditional southern food, for basically my entire life. Most of that food has humble origins. Which is a polite way of saying that it evolved out of people being dirt poor or, sadly, enslaved.  Contrary to the caricature that is Paula Deen, southern food is based on a lot of vegetables and grains, seafood and pork. Brock addressed that in an episode of MOAC:

“We all know that southern food has a bad rap. It’s this, it’s that, it’s fried, it’s all pork. Or ‘I don’t like grits.’ You don’t like grits because you’ve eaten it out of that paper bag with that picture of the dude on the front. You come here, you eat real grits, you eat real cornbread, you taste real buttermilk, you eat real country ham, you drink fine bourbon. People leave here with a different opinion of southern food.” – Sean Brock

Sure there’s the possibly unnatural proclivity to deep fry anything that’ll sit still long enough. But by and large, this food came from fields. Corn, tomatoes, greens, rice, beans, squash. And in states with a coast oysters come into play. And the ubiquitous porcine bounty that we’re all familiar with.

More than this food is even about food, though, it’s about shared experience; it’s about hospitality. Part of that is associated with the famed ‘Southern Hospitality.’ Which was itself partly a result of poor people knowing what it was like to be poor and offering a plate to anyone who showed up. Brock talks a lot about this being honest food. And honest food is a foundation on which to build honest moments.

My friend Matt, a Baton Rouge native, himself a little homesick at times for the Deep South, will sometimes call me and invite me over to boil some little red devils and take part in that ceremony of pinching tails and sucking heads. And while they boil, and we chop corn and sausage, we talk. Matt’s a musician, and that’s part of what started to bond us those years ago. We talk about music, each of us getting excited about elements of songs that no one else seems to appreciate. And when that steam carries the smell and the dogs can’t take it anymore and neither can we, we eat. Till we can’t eat.

It’s our family tradition to congregate at my aunt and uncle’s house in Headland, Alabama sometime in the few days surrounding Christmas as a family. The whole family. Family that, as a result of moving to Tennessee in 1993, I don’t know half as well as I wish I did. Cousins I remember holding when they were newborns, telling me about their college classes. Like any good southern family gathering, the food is excessive. My personal favorite part of this tradition, though, are the oysters. My uncle gets a few Igloo coolers full of Apalachicola oysters and we shuck till we can’t feel our fingers and our noses run from inexact and inconsistent proportions of horseradish in homemade cocktail sauce. And my uncle’s laugh comes roaring out of that garage in Henry County and into the kitchen where it draws the brave among us out like a siren’s song to shuck and slurp and be family. Together.

2013-12-27 16.34.44My grandmother, like so many southern grandmothers, either loves to cook or sees it as her duty. Maybe a little of both. When we head home to Alabama for Christmas we stay with her. It is not an exaggeration to say that I cannot remember a morning that I have woken up in her house that there has not been scrambled eggs, bacon, grits, toast, and coffee waiting.

Then, we sit. There is no rush to go somewhere, to do something. We sit. And we talk to each other. We listen to the history of our family told by a woman who won’t be around to tell it much longer. Stories about my great-grandaddy Crozier’s farm. About cutting cane to make syrup. About hog killings. Stories about the War. About my grandfather’s work at Fort Rucker wrenching on airplanes for the army.

And then, pushing back from the table, my grandmother gathers dishes. And no fewer than ten minutes later, without fail, remarks “Well. I guess I better see about us some lunch…” She’s already planning what to feed us next. Because that’s how she loves us. That usually ends up fried chicken or pork chops. Usually some kind of field peas seasoned with big, fat, streaky bacon. Usually also sautéed squash or some kind of vegetable-based casserole. Spoon-drop cornbread that has just the right combination of grease and salt. And pound cake usually finishes it. Dinner is typically leftovers from lunch. Which I have never minded a day in my life seeing how it was so good the first time. And then we sit some more. And we listen some more.

In the grits, bacon, pork chops, field peas, fried chicken, squash, oysters, cornbread, and pound cake we get good food. What I’d argue is the best. But, like Sean Brock often remarks, southern food is honest food. And what gets pulled out of the ground or out of the water and ends up on our tables is far, far less about bodily nourishment than it is about feeding souls.

And when I eat this food with these people, I’m slap full.

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You’re Going to Hate This (or To Live and Die in Dixie)

Dixie BBQ (IG)

I grew up drinking sweet tea out of a Mason jar. Really, I did.

I also grew up cane pole fishing for catfish at my great-uncle Red’s pond.

I spent my summer days at the lake, more often than not arriving in the bed of a truck with a bag of barbecue Lay’s in one hand and an ice-cold Coke in the other.

I can remember eating peaches off the tree, and muscadines (we called them scuplins) off the vine, still hot from the Georgia sun at my Grannie’s house.

Few are the things I cherish more than a bourbon, some good ‘cue, and Dixieland Delight loud from the speakers.

My childhood was a country song waiting to happen. Grits and sweet tea and pretty girls and college football and church; all that. And there’s no other culture I can imagine that I’d rather have grown up in. And there’s no other culture I’d rather live in as an adult. So this will steal the breath right out of the lungs of most of you:

Southerners, we need to get over ourselves.

We are not a chosen people. We are not superior to every other area of the country. Our food is not intrinsically better, and our landscapes are not inherently more ethereal and majestic. We are not quite so special as we believe. There are other breathtaking places, and interesting people, and good food, and deep traditions elsewhere in this country. People everywhere wear bow ties, and some of the best bourbon I’ve ever had was from New York. I won’t lecture about what E. at Just A Pinch of South dubbed Sugarbaker Syndrome after an old post of mine, but the point is, being Southern isn’t a schtick. It’s not a bit. It’s a culture that all of us love, and love dearly. But we desperately need to take our love of the South with a heavy dose of reality, and get a life while we’re at it.

I can’t imagine how many people are angry at me right now. But, it’s true; a psychiatrist would tell us all we have delusions of grandeur.

I am eternally partial to life in the South. And I’ll be a Southern culture apologist until The Lord claims my last breath on this Earth as his own. But part of being an apologist for something, is being realistic about what it is, and what it ain’t.

Can we be adults for a moment and face some realities? Can we do that just for a bit?

We bought and sold human beings, treated them like cattle. We didn’t really snap out of the treating them like cattle part until about the last 20 or 30 years. Statistically we’re fatter, poorer, sicker, and less well-educated than the rest of the country, and America isn’t even at the forefront globally anymore.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I honestly believe that this hyper-egotism we have is a defense mechanism. We’re trying to convince ourselves that there is no place better on God’s green earth than the space south of Mason and Dixon’s line, and we’re compensating far too heavily for the things that we know aren’t so shiny on our cultural resume. And it’s manifesting itself in constant talk about sweet tea and country music. Bow ties and bourbon. And most of all, a really weird self-important evolution of Southern Exceptionalism.

Here’s the most beautiful thing of all, though: That doesn’t change a thing for me. I still have dreams of living out my days in Alabama, married to a radiant woman with an accent that’ll make a man’s knees buckle. I plan to hunt, and fish, and read Faulkner and Flannery, and smoke pork shoulders, and take my grits with butter and cheese. I’ll forever hate Auburn and love the Braves, and complain about the conspicuous absence of sweet tea anytime I’m forced to travel north of Kentucky. But let the South be the proverbial spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine of life a little easier to swallow, rather than every minutiae of your being.

I say, for me, knowing what’s a fabrication, what’s a myth we’ve made, and what’s simply a love of place that’s stuck to my soul makes everything all the more incredible.